Review: Festen (Steep Theatre)

  
  

A party of full earth-shattering disclosure

  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

   

Steep Theatre presents

  

Festen

   
Dramatization by David Eldridge
Based on Dogme film/play
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A young melancholy Danish man who is the eldest son and heir to his father’s fortune becomes racked with grief after the drowning suicide of the closest female companion in his life. His sanity is in question. The patriarch of this empire is being celebrated while the son, who knows of a terrible family secret, plots revenge against this man who has destroyed his and his family’s life. Oh, and there’s a ghost. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking: Festen, a dramatic adaptation of a film from the Dogme series, you’d be correct. Any connection to that older play about a Danish prince is purely coincidental—and what a fascinating layer of coincidence it is. Director Jonathan Berry’s production of the Midwest premiere of this London hit is compelling from start to finish. Steep and artistic director Peter Moore have given Chicago audiences what’s sure to be a highlight of the season by bringing this hauntingly human piece to their intimate storefront space.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.While the resemblance to Hamlet is resonant (as Berry himself notes) the play takes its cue from several resources. “Festen” was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, a style of no-frills filmmaking that focuses on stripping away production elements and focusing on verisimilitude in acting, story and mise-en-scène. The setting is the 60th birthday party for Helge (a difficult role mastered by Norm Woodel), the patriarch of an enterprise where family, business and home become entangled. The arrival of the family members is somewhat reminiscent of those murder mysteries where the characters all arrive, and are introduced, each with their own eccentricities. The audience becomes familiar with them in a light-hearted fashion. However, something is quickly off kilter here as Helge’s son Michael (Michael Salinas) begins a profanity laden tirade against one of the servants, Lars (Alex Gillmor) while treating his wife (Sasha Gioppo) like a slave, all in front of his young daughter (Julia Baker).

Some of the other party guests include Helge’s remaining children Christian (Kevin Stark) and Helene (Julia Siple), Helge’s brother Poul (Pete Esposito), his father (Toby Nicholson), and wife Else (Melissa Riemer).This family, on the surface, is more of a well oiled corporation as a whole. When horrid accusations are made by Christian, they are at first mere chinks in the empire that Helge has built. Those more blindly loyal to Helge, like Poul and his personal manager Helmut (James Allen), remain unfazed and continue with routine artificial celebration. All the while, it is the servants on this estate who are clearly running the show. They act as the silent all-knowing purveyors of justice who can completely throw the chain of events off course by simply hiding a set of car keys or a reluctance to pour a glass of port.

To really delve into what’s at stake for the characters in this play would be to divulge certain revelations that you, as audience member, should avoid knowing beforehand if at all possible. The audience response was silent, yet palpable and electric on the night I attended. One of the more fascinating scenes of the evening involves a perfect amalgamation of direction, acting and design in which three separate interactions occur simultaneously in the same area of the stage. A husband and wife make violent love against a wall while a woman reads her sister’s suicide note while another man refuses sexual advances and contemplates his own contempt. All of these moments happen within feet from each other in a choreographed response and obliviousness of the others.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.There is not a weak link in this ensemble. It is cast with precision and great care for each of these characters. It will be a crime if the Jeff committee doesn’t remember this ensemble come next year. Kevin Stark leads the cast with his perfect portrayal of repression and redemption. Reimer’s final line in the play is delivered with such calculated casualty that it seems to lift a spell off this wounded family. I could go through why each of these actors should receive recognition, but that’s not quite what this play is about. This is truly about actors providing a service to their audience and to the story. No one actor ever goes too far with the drama or heaviness of the situation, but rather respects these people and story to the fullest extent.

Berry adds the perfect amount of theatricality to grip the audience viscerally and emotionally. His attention to the rituals of this world and their subsequent collapse is telling and authentic. Christopher Kriz’s sound design provides a driving emotional soundscape that encompasses a vast spectrum proving to be ghostly, elegant, foreboding, and yet hopeful. Sarah Hughey’s lighting design creates magnificent shadow effects as well as separates areas of this small space to help convey the story ever that much clearer. The minimalism of Dan Stratton’s clean Scandinavian set design echoes Ibsen and Bergman. The white sterile ornate walls and furniture proves to be disturbing in both an ethereal manner as well as disgusting as a reflection of certain revelations. Prop designer Sarah Burnham’s glassware and table settings play a vital role as they are surgically set in place. Janice Pytel’s costume design is at its best in the contrast between the color in the final scene and the formal coldness in the rest of the production.

Festen is a sophisticated journey of both the emotional and the psychological. It’s a rare piece of theatre that gives the audience a physical reaction to events. There is a moment in the final scene where Michael’s daughter sits on one of the character’s laps. She simply wants a storybook read to her. Due to common knowledge, everyone in the audience shared a knee-jerk reaction along with Gioppo as her mother. In the end, the audience has witnessed first-hand the revelations made and the life altering changes of these characters. I can only imagine what it must be like to see this play and have repressed similar horrific events that are referenced, and it’s very likely more than one seat will be filled with these individuals. While this is beyond heartbreaking, it is also doubtless that we all have hurtful occurrences big or small we’ve suppressed rather than forgotten or healed from. Festen shines a light on the courage of people who confront these battles, many within the private walls of their homes or minds.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

Steep Theatre’s production of Festen, by David Eldridge continues through June 11th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and $22 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased at www.steeptheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.

  
  

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REVIEW: Lakeboat (Steep Theatre)

     
     

Steep adeptly navigates Mamet’s austere boatmen’s tale

     
     

Jim Poole and Eric Roach in scene from 'Lakeboat' at Steep Theatre in Chicago

  
Steep Theatre presents
  
Lakeboat
  
Written by David Mamet
Directed by G.J. Cederquist
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
thru Feb 26  |  tickets: $22  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘I knew a guy who ate a chair because no one stopped him.’ Life on the lake is tedious. To drift through the monotony, a crew focuses on booze, sex and sandwiches. Steep Theatre presents Lakeboat, Playwright David Mamet’s semi-biographical account of life on a freight ship. Dale is the new night cook. A Lakeboat summer job is a romantic notion for a literature major. Dale learns quickly this isn’t a “Huck Finn” adventure. From anchors up, the jocular familiarity of the guys breeds testosterone-infused competition. Boozing escapades, sexual conquests and egg sandwiches – every raunchy story is an industrial strength, usurped, big sail of wind. Lakeboat navigates through the humorous inner-workings of a bunch of bull ship!

In Mamet style, the unsophisticated dialogue is viscerally organic. Under the direction of C.J. Cederquist, the eight-man crew delivers strong and distinctive portrayals. Perfect as the fish-out-of-water, Nick Horst (Dale) bumbles with an endearing puppy dog likeability. Eric Roach (Fred) is hilarious describing his zingo approach to getting laid. Roach climaxes with vulgar orgasmic satisfaction. Peter Moore (Stan) and Sean Bolger (Joe) capture perfectly that familiar unexplainable friendship synergy. They don’t appear to even like or listen to each other in a twosome banter. Add a third man and the claws come out in ferocious loyalty. Oddly charming! Carrying himself with dignity, Alex Gillmor (Collins) floats between ambitious second-in-charge and acknowledged sandwich gopher. Barking nonsensical orders, Norm Woodel (Skippy) is a hoot as a captain that is a few oars short. Jim Poole (fireman) is marvelously passionate explaining the importance of his mundane existence. Although hard to hear over the lakefront audio, Jason Michael Linder (pierman) checks in as an arrogant gatekeeper.

David Mamet penned a series of personality snippets to depict working life on the river. It’s a glimpse of the crude and bleak life of boatmen from the perspective of a college student’s seasonal stint. Set designer Dan Stratton stretches the boat across the middle of the theatre with seating on the port and starboard sides. The stage works nicely for the crew’s entrances on the gangplank. Then with steel poles and chains, it transforms to the boat. The visual is interesting but challenges the pacing. The galley is in the bow. The captain drives from the stern. The engine room is in the stem. The action from one end to the other end provides waves of lulling instead of rocking intensity for the perfect storm. The Steep production actualizes Mamet’s characters with tanker-like distinction. With a little more speed from the tugboat, this Lakeboat will cruise full-steam ahead.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Running time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.

Jim Poole and Eric Roach in scene from 'Lakeboat' at Steep Theatre in Chicago

  
  

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REVIEW: Peter Pan (A Play) – Lookingglass Theatre

     
     

Endearing young cast creates a playful Neverland

 

 

Kay Kron as Wendy in Peter Pan at Lookingglass Chicago

   
Lookingglass Theatre presents
   
Peter Pan (a play)   
     
Written and directed by Amanda Dehnert
Based on the books by
J.M. Barrie
at
Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan (map)
through Dec 12  |  tickets: $24-$62  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Amanda Dehnert has adapted and staged a very faithful version of J.M. Barrie’s childhood classic (well, almost–it’s too politically correct to retain the island’s Indian tribe). It’s not just faithful to Barrie, with its multiple narrators describing the exotic and imaginary topography of Neverland, detailing the psychology of its make-believe, and providing back stories on the lesser characters like Tootles, Slightly and Smee. It’s even more faithful to the challenges of childhood, all those non-negotiable, first-time joys and fears where from moment to moment everything that happens can seem the end of the world.

It’s not just the runaway or throwaway Lost Boys who are clueless and compass-less in Neverland. It’s also the Darling siblings, the equally abandoned Pirates and their “leader of monsters” Captain Hook, still hurting from being considered nice when he knew he was nasty. Above all, it’s Peter Pan who is terrified of being “grown up and done for.” He is rightly described as “young and innocent and heartless,” which is just how the author saw the beautiful Davies brothers who he immortalized in “Peter Pan.” Barrie, more than Pewter, didn’t want them to grow up–specifically old and ugly. Only one died young and that was because he perished in World War I.

Peter Pan at Lookingglass - art workThat doesn’t mean that Lookingglass’ rampaging staging is really children’s theater, however much the inventive hijinks recall a school pageant. The few kids in the opening night audience seemed more perplexed than enraptured by the pell-mell action. A bit too hip and flippant for its good, this slickly knowing, slyly winking staging is full of in-jokes for former children. But it does capture the renegade power of children’s imagination , as remembered after the fact by Barrie and Dehnert. Practically everything that Ryan Nunn’s Peter – a true and stalwart Alpha boy with cockiness and superiority to spare – proposes is a game, if only because he’s never had anyone older than himself to sober him up into something like seriousness.

The second act in particular slows down enough to really consider the question of whether there’s a point to all these endless adventures that offer no lessons beyond winning or losing. Peter recruits Wendy to be the mother who the boys lost along with everything else (making them pockets, tucking them in, etc.). For him that mostly means telling stories even as they’re actually living them from action-packed day to dream-laden night. The stories provide stability, but then Neverland is nothing but stories: Lacking a context and contrast, they gradually lose their power to charm. At first Wendy (Kay Kron) just revels in the anarchic freedom of Neverland’s total lack of rules and expectations (”I want to DO EVERYTHING FOREVER!”). But slowly she finds that she’s becoming the thing she pretends to be, a nurturing and protective person whose homesickness is just another way to grow up. (The text says that they had no word for “love” and had to make do with “home” instead.) Neverland is a misnomer because, except for Peter, it must end and the lost boys must be found.

It’s not as preciously philosophical as it sounds because Dehnert wisely distracts from the darker doings with all the romper-room exuberance that a young and athletic cast can bring to this escape fantasy. Of course there’s the usual flying (though not on wires but rope lifts). Wendy’s house is created, as children would, entirely from chalk Peter Pan at Lookingglass - art work2drawings by the cast prettily scrawled across the stage. Lily’s (“Tiger” is now missing) escape from Skull Rock and Hook’s final showdown with Peter are performed on dangling ramps and rolling scaffolding. It’s hectic fun and child’s play in the best sense of the term.

Deliberately or unintentionally, the cast could not be more endearing. Kay Kron’s radiant Wendy shows everything she feels with all the naked honesty of open-hearted children. Jamie Abelson’s no-nonsense John recalls his father (a respectable Raymond Fox), while Alex Weisman’s silly Michael seems little more mature than this nursemaid Nana (Royer Bockus, speaking rather than barking). Thomas J. Cox’s Hook is evil incarnate, a caricature built from memories of the meanest adults the children ever met. Aislinn Mulligan’s tomboyish Tinkerbell is mute but memorable as she evolves from fairy petulance to something like battlefield heroism. Above all, Nunn’s valiant, resourceful and incorrigible Peter sets the standard for this young and able cast. We don’t want him to grow up anymore than Barrie did.

   
   
Rating: ★★★ 
   
     

 

 

Extra Credit:

        
     

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Review: Steep Theatre’s “Kill the Old, Torture Their Young”

Out of Place, Out of Time

kill-old

Victory Gardens presents:

Kill the Old, Torture Their Young

by David Harrower
directed by Kathryn Walsh
thru November 7th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

The success of Blackbird at Victory Gardens Theatre this summer has exposed Chicago to the work of Edinburgh born playwright David Harrower. Kill the Old, Torture Their Young, onstage at Steep Theatre, is Harrower’s second play, which had its world premiere at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1998, fresh from his breakout success with Knives in Hens (1995).

“Kill the Old, Torture Their Young” is also the name of a song by Biffy Clyro, a Scottish alternative grunge band, which also had its beginnings in the mid-90s under the name Screwfish. Interestingly enough, Harrower bookends his play with monologues from a nameless Rock Singer (Derek Garner), commenting on modern alienation from an airplane in flight. But any connection between the two may have more to do with the 90’s explosion of Scottish culture than anything else. It’s not that the playwright might be familiar with Biffy Clyro; it’s that the band’s lyrics, too, are chockfull of the alienation and dislocation that inform Harrower’s central themes.

Steep Theatre’s production dislocates Kill the Old, Torture Their Young even further, from its cultural and historical roots. Placing the action in America, the actors do not engage in Scottish dialect; nor is there much of a strong nod to the 1990s postmodern use of multiple narratives–experimentation that ultimately influenced major commercial films like Magnolia. Director Katherine Walsh’s choices would be more than excusable with a stronger cast, with better timing to pull off all the nuanced humor of Harrower’s writing. However, given the unevenness of performances and lack of a cohesive ensemble, this production loses its bearings in more ways than one.

What also goes missing is daring punk/grunge energy that would better inform the rage of a character like Darren (Niall McGinty), a man whose thwarted ambition to become an actor results in otherwise inexplicable violence. Much like the Scottish novel Trainspotting, written by Irvine Welsh, made into a major motion picture, Kill the Old, Torture Their Young contains an underlying current of rebellion against alienating daily capitalist existence. That rage, unfortunately, goes largely unexploited and un-acted on in this production. Sadly, characters in this production seem to share only common resignation to the dreary, meaninglessness rhythm of their commodified lives.

That being said, a few performances create interest. Jim Poole’s quiet and stirring portrayal of Steven stands out, as the manager who could film the city he loves better than Robert (Peter Moore), the famous documentarian hired to do the job. Nice moments are created between Robert and Heather (Julia Siple) in a hotel room together. Paul (Leonard Kraft) and Angela (Bronwen Prosser) make a realistic pair of lost souls, who will likely stay together even if one doesn’t know what to do about the other. James Allen’s chagrined Birdwatcher and Patricia Donegan’s random Woman in Robes add badly needed humor and spice to the proceedings.

Rating: ««

 

Production Personnel

 

Playwright: David Harrower
Director: Kathryn Walsh
Asst. Director: Alex Hugh Brown
Prod. Manager: Julia Siple
Scenic Design: Dan Stratton
Lighting Design Samantha Szigeti
Costume Design: Melissa Torchia
Sound Design: M. Florian Staab
Fight Choreographer: Joey de Bettencourt
Stage Manager: Jen Poulin
Cast: James Allen
Patricia Donegan
Dereck Garner
Leonard Kraft
Niall McGinty
Peter Moore
Jim Poole
Bronwen Prosser
Julia Siple